The long, dry spell in Angat

MANILA, Philippines — Metro Manila is bracing for a possible water crisis, and Bulacan and Pampanga farmlands are suffering from lack of irrigation. But for fisherfolk in Angat Dam, the drought began as early as two yeas ago.

There has been a dearth in the daily catch of fisherfolk in the watershed long before the water level reached the critical 180-meter mark. An estimated 100 families in the reservoir – including the indigenous nomadic Dumagats – depend on fishing for their livelihood.

Ironically, during the El Niño of 2010, when the water level at Angat Dam reached an alarming 157 meters, there were still plenty of fish in the reservoir.

“Our catch from the last two days yielded 25 kilos only,” lamented Juliana Lim, one of only 3 fish dealers in Angat. She said she has lost millions of pesos since 2012.

But authorities claimed that fish supply in the area is not as depleted as portrayed by others.

“Based on our statistics, it’s not that low. The data will show that there are still plenty of fish to catch. It’s just not as bountiful as before,” explained Eliseo Calija, Section Chief of the Angat Watershed Area Team.

Six years ago, the daily catch was anywhere between 300 kg to 500 kg, fetching an average profit of P10,000 to P15,000 per day, with highs of P20,000 on some days. But those days of bounty are long gone.

“They have not released new fingerlings. The ones they released are ‘pygmies’,” claimed Nanay Juliana. 

But Calija explained, “We cannot just seed. There has to be scientific basis.”

Calija also said there is already a move by the management of the Angat Dam Watershed to seed fingerlings. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is already conducting a study and they expect the results to come out next week.

Some also blame the introduction of an aggressive fish species into the reservoir, the flower horn, said to be popular among feng shui aficionados. They reportedly attack other species and consume most of the food sources, stunting the growth of other fishes.

When Calija first came to Angat Dam, he also asked the same question: “Why were flower horns released in the reservoir?”

“I will not allow any release [of fingerlings] without proper certification from BFAR. They are the ones who know what appropriate species to release in the area,” he said.

Calija hopes they will be able to eradicate flower horns in time for the next release of fingerlings.

However, after this fishing season, Nanay Juliana already plans to leave it all behind. The unassuming 62-year-old, who now walks with a limp, got involved with the fish trade over 30 years ago. Nanay Juliana was able to support her family and raise her 3 children through fishing. Her eldest daughter is now in Canada, her youngest son in Dubai, and her other son is an engineer at the National Power Corporation.

She also plans to sell her 7-month-old floating house, which serves as her base of operations in the middle of the dam, and just recoup some of the money she used in building it.

Although she is no longer as financially liquid as she used to be during the glory days of abundance, Nanay Juliana is still better off compared to the other fish dealers in the area. She has her children to support her.

The other dealers reportedly have no fallback. They solely rely on the waters of Angat Dam for their livelihood. They have collectibles from fisherfolk, but without any fish to catch, the debtors cannot pay them back

Fish dealers lend money to the fisherfolks, usually between P45,000-P50,000.

“I have uncollected debt running in the hundreds of thousands of pesos,” Nanay Juliana revealed. “As dealers, we even supply the fisherfolk with rice, sugar, coffee, and other basic necessities. Sometimes, we also give them spending money for their children.”

But the fisherfolk cannot pay them back, not with today’s catch.

“They have nothing else. They only have their boats,” said Nanay Juliana.